Russian media outlets are running stories saying that the Russian Strategic Missile Force is going to keep itself busy in 2016, carrying out a total of 16 intercontinental ballistic missile tests. This poses a few obvious questions: Is that a lot of tests? Are we all going to die? Do I need to start digging a bomb shelter in my backyard right this instant?
The answers are, respectively, yes, no, and it's complicated.
First off, 16 tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, is a lot. Last year, Russia conducted eight, and doubling a nuclear missile test program is kind of a big deal. Of the planned 16 tests, 14 will be for new systems, while the remaining two launches are meant to test extending the life of existing missiles.
What, then, are the Russians testing? Well, they're testing road-mobile missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and beginning the test program of their new heavy ICBM, which NATO calls the SS-X-30 Sarmat. "The missile is in early phases of development and engineering," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
There's a lot of really weird psychology and game theory at work when you start talking nuclear deterrence, but one thing that creates huge amounts of angst among people in charge of nuclear armaments is, basically, performance anxiety. Nuclear deterrence is built on the idea that even if you get a jump on me and take me down, you're still going to get taken out by that vicious response I've kept in storage just for that occasion.
The sweet spot for avoiding nuclear apocalypse is when both sides have enough nuclear capability to ensure their retaliation will have full effect — but without having so much strike capability that it creates a fear in your opponent that the other guy can get enough of a jump on you to take both you and your retaliatory ability out in one fell swoop. If both sides think they have a strong second-strike ability, but know that their first strike would not totally obliterate the opponent, then everybody is going to just chill.
According to Jeffrey Lewis, a big nuke wonk at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, of all the kinds of nuclear sneak attacks, Russian leaders live in perpetual fear of a decapitation strike. Kinda like it sounds, a decapitation strike kills all the top bosses, so that there's nobody around to send the signals or release the launch codes for the retaliatory attack.
Of all the tools a country keeps on hand to ensure that a delayed-action strike hits the target even if they've been taken out, submarine-launched nuclear missiles are among the most potent. With max loadout, a US missile sub carries something like 288 warheads on 24 missiles; each warhead has about 25 times as much destructive power as the Hiroshima bomb. And really, anyone with a nuclear missile sub worth its salt (and the Russians have some very good ones) can effectively annihilate a country if they put their mind to it. Thus, missing just one submarine in your surprise sneak attack means you're still in for an incredibly awful retaliation.
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Enter US missile defense. According to the US, missile defense is important because a state that has nuclear weapons (say North Korea) and one that might one day (say Iran) might just be crazy enough to try nuking the US anyway, deterrence or not. Furthermore, the US says, the systems aren't aimed at Russia or China; there wouldn't be enough interceptors to make a noticeable dent in the cloud of incoming Russian or Chinese missiles to really help much anyway.
But some Russians nuclear experts say those US claims are disingenuous, and that neither Iran nor North Korea are anywhere competent enough to launch a nuclear strike against America. But the Russians also note that the US missile defenses could, for instance, shoot down missiles launched from Russia's naval bastion, the one safe place where it could launch missiles from. So Russian fear boils down to the notion that the US could conceivably take out Moscow and top leadership in a surprise first-strike decapitation, and then rely on missile defenses to mop up the few missiles that did get launched in a counterattack.
Thus, with these new ICBM tests, we can expect to see a lot of measures intended to give Russian warheads an edge against US defenses. But that has the effect of making the Russians less paranoid that a massive nuclear sneak attack form the Americans would work, and when people with the nukes are more chill, we're all more chill.
Now, one of those new-fangled nukes is a big beast of a missile, the SS-X-30 Sarmat. Kristensen explained that the decision to pursue the Sarmat is "partially motivated by desire for a design that can deploy missile defense-evading payloads." And being a very heavy ICBM, the Sarmat could theoretically pack a whole lot of that.
One of the cooler bits is the speculation that the Russians are going way, way back to their grandad's playbook for some vintage nuke tech and re-introducing the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS. Many decades ago, even the US and Soviet Union could see that putting nukes in orbit was an absolutely destabilizing thing, because if you have nukes flying over your enemy's head, you could detonate one in space at any moment, frying electronics courtesy of the blast's electromagnetic pulse, and have free rein to nuke at will. So, in a rare bout of accord, both countries agreed that allowing any sort of weapon of mass destruction in space was just crazy talk, and they banned it.
Sometime later, the Soviets took a hard look at the treaty language and noted that it only banned orbital weapons Weapons that went around the Earth in a complete orbit. But, they reasoned, if the weapons only went part of the way around before coming back to Earth, then they wouldn't be considered Nukes in Space, but merely Nukes with a Strange Deployment Method. The theory was nukes launched that way could come around the South Pole and hit the US without lighting up all the early warning radars strewn across Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.
Eventually, the US got to putting up satellites to detect launches so the Soviets couldn't get away with any of this sneaky FOBS business, and the whole toolkit was put on ice in 1979.
Anyhow, along comes missile defense. Missile defense systems are pretty limited in the area they can cover, so a missile coming out of central Russia is going to be way, way, way beyond the reach of interceptors based in Alaska. But, just to be on the safe side, perhaps hedging against potential sea- or air-based anti-missile systems, the Russians dusted off the FOBS idea. Or at least according to Major General Vladimir Vasilenko, former head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute.
Now, Russia is a huge-ass country. There's no way that the US can possibly afford to cover the entire Russian perimeter with kit to shoot down missiles, so if Russian missiles can leave in any one of a number of directions, they'll be able to bypass US missile defenses, and the Russians will be confident in their retaliatory capability. That means they will probably chill out, according to that deterrence theory, and we can all die of something other than being nuked to death.
But here's the thing: It's not entirely certain if the Russians are going through all this hubbub because they're on to some sneaky US nefariousness or because they're downright paranoid. Which leads us to our third main question: Do I need to start digging a bomb shelter in my backyard right this instant?
It's not certain that Russian concerns about missile defense are legit, but the Russian ICBM modernization is going along anyway as if they were. (Those efforts began in earnest in 1997, Kristensen said, so this isn't exactly a "new" move for Russia.) And as this Russian development program begins wrapping up, it so happens that the US nuclear modernization program will be kicking off in earnest. And based on concerns about all these new badass Russian missiles, it will probably be upgraded pretty substantially.
What we have at the end of it all is a long series of back-and-forth, tit-for-tat moves that are actually only sort of related to each other, but, to the casual observer, look like a straight-up nuclear arms race. Which at this point it isn't, but it might take a life if its of its own and turn into a real arms race even if none of the participants wanted to race at all.
So, if this were a sane, logical, and just world, there'd be no reason to start digging your fallout shelter right this instant. And all things considered, it doesn't look like you should. But looking into a side gig selling Geiger counters around the neighborhood might be a good idea.
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